Multi-stakeholderism is about losing: Reflections on working through the AfriSIG practicum

7 September 2015

Multi-stakeholderism is about losing.

I first heard this statement on the first day of the African School on Internet Governance (AfriSIG) in Dr David Souter’s lecture and overview of the Internet governance ecosystem and its key players.

Initially, I silently disagreed and to an extent, did not quite grasp the full meaning of the statement at the time. In my mind, in any discourse that seeks to incorporate the input of several stakeholders, the objective would be to win, leaving such a process after having successfully pushed through one’s stakeholder interests and positions. Otherwise what would be the point of even being at the negotiation table if one approached it from the position of anticipating losing?

However, three days later and after having gone through the practicum exercise, I have to say that I now totally get what ‘losing’ means in any multi-stakeholder setting, and I have emerged from the process a little traumatised but wiser.

The practicum required participants to split into four stakeholder groups representing the interests of businesses, governments, the technical community and civil society in coming up with an ‘African’ position in the internet governance debate and specifically, on the highly contentious principle of net neutrality and practice of zero rating. The whole idea of coming up with a single African position seemed like a mammoth, near impossible task from the beginning.

The process would eventually culminate in a mock simulation of an international multi-stakeholder meeting intended to take a decision on the practicum topics under discussion. This would help the participants get a sense of how things are done in the real situation.

Although we were strongly urged to step out of our usual roles back home, I opted to join the eight people in the civil society group, because I thought that I would be more effective making input from a perspective I was more familiar with.

The three days of practicum was a strange combination of fun, enlightenment, slow torture and an exercise in patience. It also soon became apparent that there was not enough time to first of all understand the practicum subjects and then develop a well thought out and unified position. We attempted to work over dinner on the first evening, but ended up chucking the idea after the organisers provided the most fantastic entertainment. We agreed to each do some reading and research overnight then meet the following morning at 8am, however the fact that we were all staying in different hotels affected arrival times at the meeting venue.

Ultimately we found ourselves with less than 30 minutes to answer practicum questions before day two proceedings started. The limited time we had was mostly consumed by frustrating disagreements and the endeavor to understand or see things from the same perspective. There were strong and divergent characters, including disruptive ones. We all felt strongly about getting our points and specific wording incorporated into the document, yet it was important that we did not get trapped by absolutes. Throughout the day, we caught bites of conversations with each other, using tea breaks to try and get others in the group to see our point of view. The task went beyond just looking at a position, judging it by its facts and deciding whether one was for or against.

Not much emerged in the evening discussion. The 12 hour day program wasn’t helping on the exhaustion front. My group went to rest but remained on edge as we kept seeing tweets from the business group working on their position well past midnight. We understood that in the real world of negotiations, things are done exactly in this manner: having very limited time within which to grasp an issue and develop a position.

With a conversation stuck in neutral, in no time it was already the morning of the multi-stakeholder meeting, and we had nothing close to a coherent statement. We needed to compromise and reach a consensus in less than four hours.

The few group members available then made up their minds to step up and get a grip. Time right now was really not our friend. It’s amazing how sometimes when you are pressed for time and under pressure, you suddenly develop an ability to concede to or defer the opinions of others and let go your own very strong convictions.

By 5pm we had a position. How the mock multi-stakeholder meeting panned out went beyond what we imagined. We had the entire gamut of officialdom from a formal conference set-up with its attendant ‘protocolising’, to a badass no-nonsense chairperson. If there were marks given for the exercise, I really don’t know how we did. But we had a position, and that is what mattered. I learnt when to step down in order for progress to be made, and when to step up when it mattered. I understood the value of negotiation, and creating strategic alliances in order to move one’s agenda. Most importantly, I learnt that though important and desirable, multi-stakeholderism is not simple as participation, decision-making and power are skewed towards certain groups or individuals due to different dynamics.

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